The first writer is getting good feedback on her script so wants to send it out to producers. She describes her complex script then asks: ‘How do you write a synopsis for non-linear material? Do you have any examples that you could share with me?’
Here’s my answer to writer number 1 .
Dear Writer Number 1
No, unfortunately I don’t have any examples to hand. Perhaps you could look online. But actually, unless I’m misunderstanding your terminology, I’m not sure that you’ve got a problem here. The three key problems in my view with flashback and other time jump/ nonlinear material are:
1. how to construct it so that it works and is understandable to the film audience;
2. how to write the script clearly enough for readers to vividly visualize what happens as they read;
3. (linked with both points 1) and 2) whether without knowing it, the writer and any readers are using the written direction as a crutch to understand where in time the flashbacks happen and to whom.
(By the latter I mean, double check when you've written your flashback script to see whether readers would know what date a flashback happened if there wasn't a date and the word ‘flashback’ written in the script in them. Also double check that a cinema audience - which doesn't have a script in front of them bearing the characters' names - would realise that the three year old toddler in a flashback is now 65 year old Fred and not his elderly friend Mike. Written information like this will not be available to your audience except by use of dateline captions or the like, which are not always appropriate. I've quite often read scripts where, for example, we visit characters in flashbacks across a lifetime and without the script it would be impossible to understand who the characters in the flashbacks actually are. In my response to Writer Number 2 I discuss visual ways to transmit this vital information)
Writer number 1, you seem to have achieved all of these things , since you're getting such good feedback about the script, so I'd say double check number 3 just in case, but if that's okay, the problem with the synopsis is essentially a pitching problem. That is, unless you and I have a different understanding of what a ‘synopsis’ is, which might be the case. Sometimes usage of these things can change.
In my experience, ‘synopses’ are very short – a paragraph. ‘Treatments’ or ‘outlines’ however can be about thirty pages long. Assuming you are talking about a one paragraph synopsis, the first problem (and it’s the perennial problem in any kind of pitch) is that you make sure you pitch to a producer who will be interested in the particular kind of script that you’re offering. So check that. Then, as far as the synopsis is concerned, I would describe the action just as you would for a general public audience, making it sound as interesting and intriguing as you can. Don’t go into the technical details. Just emphasise the story that you’re telling, suggesting what a powerful mystery it is, and how it’s unfolded bit by bit so as to reveal which character did what. There’s no need for anyone reading the script or watching the film to know what kind of structure you’re using or how you built it, any more than it’s important for the audience to know what kinds of lenses or audio equipment or editing software were used in shooting the film. If you start to talk technicalities you frighten people. The interesting thing about flashback and nonlinear films generally is that despite the panic that the mention of them often induces among people discussing screenwriting theory, unless the flashbacks in a film are very extensive or are being used in a very novel way, mostly people accept them without thought and people writing critiques mention them only briefly if at all. I just checked out a few sites for The Social Network. The flashback structure isn’t even mentioned. In The Life of Pi it's mentioned only in passing
If it turns out that you’re writing what I'd call a treatment or outline, I’d do the same. In all three I'd avoid technical terms like the ones I have invented and use in my book. I mean terms like: ‘fractured tandem’ ‘portmanteau’ etc. These are precise technical terms I created to remind writers of precisely what each structure actually is and what it has to do. They’re very useful to keep writers on track, but to other people they can sound very daunting. Producers who have been scared by weak flashback films might get scared off. Just tell the story powerfully. As I say, in most cases, people won’t even mention the flashbacks if they’re used successfully. I wouldn’t even use the term ‘flashbacks’ in the synopsis, personally (although you’ll need to use them in the script itself of course, as I’m sure you have)
In conclusion, I’d say, look at a few DVD covers of films that have resemblances to your film and read the blurb to get the idea of how the marketing people promote such films. That will give you the idea. The marketing people usually know their business. Next, write your synopsis to make your story sound as fascinating and thrilling as it can without including any technical terms or making a big deal about its nonlinearity.
I hope that's useful
WRITER NUMBER 2
Writer number two is using a very complex hybrid that contains dream sequences, flashbacks running backwards, a life changing incident flashback and possibly flashbacks out of chronological order. This writer says 'I just don't know how to make it an easy read for conventional readers wary of "FLASHBACK" I'm experimenting now with more precise naming: instead of "flashback" saying "an hour ago" "10 years ago" - but I don't know whether that's an acceptable way to write?? The extreme abundance of flashbacks now in use is making me desperate for a way to make them go-down-easy.'
Here is my response to Writer Number 2
Dear Writer Number 2 This sounds like a very interesting script but as you’re well aware, very complex thus prone to go off course. For you, as for Writer 1, an essential matter is to target the right producer. That's the first step. Now for my comments. I am a great believer in asking the hard questions about what might not be working, so if you don't mind I'll jump into these, boots and all rather than just dealing with the terminology issue you raise.
The primary issue here, as I’m sure you’ll be well aware (but it doesn’t hurt to mention it again) is whether you have actually succeeded in unfolding your story in a way that will be coherent on the screen, or whether you are just so familiar with the material that you are believing it to be coherent and powerful. That’s a big ‘if’, and you’ll need to test drive the piece on various people and grill them to see whether they get it. I'm sure you've either done that or are planning to.
My first thought after wondering the above was to wonder whether, as I've discussed above, you are unconsciously relying on the reader having the prop of stage directions to locate the flashback in time(‘one hour ago’, ‘two days ago’ - whatever). That written clue will not, of course, be accessible to a cinema audience, unless you set up a convention of putting the precise time of each flashback on screen in a caption when it appears, which might work or alternatively might be extremely irritating, or both of the above, depending on the audience). Whether you use this ‘dateline caption’ approach or not, I think you might consider making clear visible distinctions between your flashbacks. For example,if the flashback is to the 1970s, make the people have hair styles and clothes of that time. If you are flashing back to someone’s childhood, give both the child version and the adult version distinctive hair or glasses, so that we instantly recognize who we are looking at. You can also experiment with the use of black and white or sepia footage for a specific time frame (for example, say, the hour or two before the accident is always depicted in black and white). This black and white footage trick to depict one time frame is used in Memento. You might also think about using underexposed footage or footage adjusted to look reddish or greenish to indicate different moments in time. But you’ll need to be careful about not overdoing that.
The producer will need to be sure that the film will be comprehensible to the audience without written clues, so double-check.
My second thought was that since you have an incremental flashback ( a life-changing incident that is revealed bit by bit until it’s told in full in the third act) it would be wise double-check that you are using that to maximum effect (see my comments in The 21st Century Screenplay on Catch 22 and The End of the Affair) because it’s easy to construct that kind of flashback so that it’s a fizzer. It needs to be a mystery until its very last moment.
My third thought was that if you have flashbacks that are not, as is normal with flashbacks, telling their story chronologically (whether that’s happening forwards – say, starting at 1980 and proceeding forwards until the present, or travelling chronologically backwards, going from the present back to 1980) you may have problems maintaining tension because there may be insufficient rising suspense. That often happens with brief flashbacks that occur out of chronological order. I'd say just keep an eye on it.
My fourth thought was: ‘double check that the flashbacks and time jumps are genuinely setting up then gradually solving a mystery’. Don’t just use them to fill in backstory. Make sure there is a genuine and compelling mystery in the present that is being solved, bit by bit by each flashback.
Now having given you a whole bunch of advice that you didn't ask for, let's proceed.
Let's assume the structure is sound and doing everything you want it to in terms of transmitting your ideas, creating the relevant emotional engagement etcetera and the only issue is how to make the script an easy read. As I’ve already mentioned to my first correspondent who was anxious about how to write the synopsis of a film that contained flashbacks, it’s fascinating how many people writing about successful films that use flashbacks mention the flashbacks rarely, if at all.
You mention that you don't even know what name to give this hybrid structure you've created. I'd say by all means think of a name for your own purposes, but don’t even think about including that name in any discussion or description in the script or otherwise. That is our technical jargon. It’s secret writer-speak – very useful for us, at best irrelevant to others and at worst sounding scary and/or overly academic.
Regarding the way you describe the flashbacks in the actual script, you will need to use the term ‘flashback’ and I personally would give the specific time of each flashback. If it’s a dream I’d use the term ‘Dream Sequence’. But regardless of all of this, I would, as I suggested earlier, be very consciously trying to make each visually identifiable to the audience so that they had no doubt of what it was and when it happened and to whom. Or rather, that if they had a doubt, it was a pleasurable doubt that you later explained or else left pleasurably unexplained (as opposed to irritatingly unresolved and puzzling).
It might be worth getting hold of some films that have such contents. You’ve got dream sequences and flashbacks in ‘Wild Strawberries’. Perhaps you could find the script and see what terminology is used.
I hope this helps.
Kindest regards to both of you and good luck with the scripts.